From the Fall 2011 edition of B. Magazine, by Ryan Skoog ’10 M.B.A.
Social enterprise applies established business practices to address poverty, hunger and human rights issues
It’s not often that a marketing management term paper leads to an expedition across Death Valley in the heat of summer. But this was my plan from the beginning. As the founder of Venture Expeditions, a nonprofit that utilizes business models and practices to address worldwide social issues, I leveraged the Death Valley trip to raise awareness and resources to fund 250,000 meals for Burmese refugees.
The driving principle behind social entrepreneurship is to use the power of business to profitably solve social and environmental issues. As the founder of Venture Expeditions Inc., I had a basic understanding of how social entrepreneurship could help solve some of these challenging issues. And as a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas I had a front row seat to the rising trend of social enterprise.
My first enterprise started as a late-night dorm conversation in 2002 with my friend and co-founder, Aaron Smith: “What if we bike across the country to raise money for humanitarian mission projects?”
That dream grew into a courageous first trip from Portland, Ore., to New York City that raised $17,000. Our efforts evolved into the creation of Venture Expeditions, an organization involving thousands of people across the country and hundreds of participants hiking mountains, cycling across continents and running across states, to raise funds and awareness for humanitarian projects. To date, more than $1 million has been raised to fund dozens of clean water projects in Africa, a children’s care center in Thailand, safe houses for victims of human trafficking in Asia and a Burmese refugee food program.
Early on, the growth of Venture Expeditions led me to seek an M.B.A degree. I heard Dean Christopher Puto give a lecture on how the “goal of any business is to create something of value that benefits individuals and society,” and “that profits will follow” this type of business. I remember thinking, “That’s it! Use the power of business as the solution to social issues.”
Transitioning from a nonprofit undergraduate degree to an M.B.A. program was a shock at first. I remember teaching myself calculus late at night on Wikipedia just to keep up in an economics class. Yet the M.B.A. program provided me with a new perspective, convincing me that having a social mission is the greatest way to quickly grow a profitable business or new product line with limited capital in today’s market. And along the way, I learned some key lessons about when to let social mission inform our business models and vice versa.
While I was already deeply involved with Venture Expeditions, several St. Thomas entrepreneurship professors also encouraged me to look for opportunities in a niche industry I was already familiar with. For me, that opportunity was volunteer travel. Growing up in a family that placed a heavy emphasis on world travel, I had already led 24 trips to 42 countries to participate in humanitarian missions. So, I turned a final marketing paper for Dr. Avinash Malshe into a business plan, raised capital from friends and family and launched Fly for Good, Inc., a for-profit travel company that offers humanitarian discounted airfare through 13 major airlines and discounted travel insurance through our International Volunteer Card brand.
By the time I graduated from the UST MBA program, Fly for Good had saved volunteers and nonprofits millions of dollars on airfare, allowing them to do more good with their organizations. And just as importantly, the company has grown to more than $6 million in sales, with high-profile clients such as Harvard University, Kiva.org, Invisible Children and the Peace Corps.